Much has happened since I last wrote and just in the past month. Having received funding from my alma mater Berkeley to take gayageum lessons in Korea for the academic year, I moved out of New York City after four years and am now in Seoul. Before I left from California nearly a month ago, I visited my teacher in her downtown Los Angeles apartment for the last time and she passed down one of her gayageums to me.
The lessons with 연희 언니 are largely focused on technique, which is a good complement to the old school lessons I had from 할머니. I'm learning a lot and I realized that I've been calling the double flicking technique 쌍튀김 (튀김 means fried food so twin fried food?) instead of 쌍튕김.
So much has happened. After an unbelievable tragedy last month, my dearest teacher, my loving 할머니, also passed away this week. I kind of knew that I wouldn't see her again on this earth but I didn't know she would go so soon.
I miss her so much. I'm glad I got to see her and leave her tidy place with these words:
푹 쉬세요 할머니! 다음에 뵈요~
Typing with this balloon of a blister on my forefinger feels funny but I fly back to New York tomorrow and have a lot of work to do on my computer. I have been going to visit my teacher for a lesson each time I'm in Los Angeles for break and went this morning for my summer break lesson.
My leg fell quickly asleep sitting cross-legged, more accustomed to sitting on the piano bench and at desks the past two years. And with the calluses I developed long gone, blisters emerged on my fingertips before I could even make it to snack time. And I don't know if it was just today but 할머니 remarked that I didn't seem to be entirely present. Like my body, maybe my mind is out of shape and can no longer be still for a couple hours.
I kept getting my fingers in position to pluck the next note, even though my teacher kept telling me to take my time since moving my hand away early from the ringing note changes the sound. It's funny that my impatient personality is apparent regardless of the instrument or observer; my voice teacher in New York says that I seem to have a habit of putting the cart before the horse. The cart before the horse - what a silly thing to do.
I hope I'm doing things in the right order at the right pace this time. Staying in New York to find a job so that I can develop a career in arts management and knock out my student loans in the next few years. Staying in New York so that I can be in a challenging environment to continue to develop my voice as an artist, my technique as a musician and pursue the projects I've begun.
Los Angeles has a way of making me feel like I want to settle down and never leave. When I come back for good, 할머니 may not be able to give me lessons anymore. She told me her hearing and vision has gotten worse, even though her presence and quips make me laugh as much as ever. It's a choice I'm making, putting singing over studying kayagum. I hope I'm doing the right thing. I hope that I will absorb the sounds my teacher wants to pass on to me. I hope that I will be capable of playing anything I want on kayagum someday.
It's a good thing I'm leaving tomorrow. I'm growing too attached already.
Me & my teacher. Photo by Elliot Choi.
After 171 lessons and 22 months, I am now on an indefinite hiatus from gayageum learning, as I no longer live in Los Angeles, where my dear teacher resides. Sitting through our two hour lessons, twice a week over the past two years has been an incredible opportunity, yet another that I never thought to dream of.
I didn't get to finish learning "If Tears were Pearls," the Sung Keum Yun masterpiece but maybe another time... my teacher said it'll probably just take another month to learn the rest of the piece. But actually learning to play it with the bending tones and feel will likely take years, if not a decade or two. I tried to audio record our last lesson because I wanted to have it as a reference, but she refused. I could have hid it in my bag and recorded but I figured it's best to respect her and just do what she says. I am certain that I will forget most of it (especially since I barely have any of that piece memorized and only was able to play while watching my teacher play along with me) but she said that's okay. Better forget and relearn than listen back and practice along and mess up the piece. I just hope I have a chance to relearn it.
We did, however, perform "Arirang" at my last LA show on August 10th and my sister recorded a video, which you can watch below. I find the double flicking (쌍튀김) especially difficult of the various plucking methods and haven't been able to do it successfully without stumbling yet. But overall, the piece went fine for where I'm at and my teacher said we should be glad that none of the strings broke in the middle of the performance. I was happy to be able to share a humongous part of my LA existence at a place that has an equally big part of my heart and time in LA, blue whale jazz bar, with so many people and communities that have become special to me, like Passion Church.
The first video, right above the "Arirang" video, is of me telling my Resonations stories (stories that correspond to each of the twelve strings of the gayageum), which are on the home page here. Even though I told myself to speak slower, watching back, I see that I could have taken much more time... when will I learn to not rush?
I'm still not quite certain of the tuning of the gayageum - my teacher always says that I try to match it to the piano notes. Also, she mentioned in passing a couple times that the tuning varies on the type of gayageum piece, like from minyo to sanjo. You put the anjok (bridge below the string) higher on a song like "Arirang," because you don't bend notes the same way you do on a piece like "If Tears were Pearls." Furthermore, I think she said that you only bend notes on certain strings and not on others. I don't know how/ wasn't allowed to bend notes much but I hope I can learn to do that because it evokes some emotion from deep within. Until then, I think those inflections may come out in my singing.
From the beginning, my teacher has continuously said that I need to learn this the right way so that I could teach others in the future... I'm not sure that I will get to such a level. The next time I go to Korea, I will look into purchasing a modern gayageum that I can plug into an amp, with twice the number of strings, so that I can play all the notes of the Western scale, and accompany myself singing all kinds of songs. While the 22 months of learning won't suffice for me to perform gayageum in the traditional way, I think I've a good foundation that I can apply to a modern gayageum and play in way that is supportive to the kind of music I sing and write. Of course, I may be mistaken. And I would like to continue to learn to play traditionally, as well. But it will have to be in another season of my life. Observing the trends in my life, it will probably come unexpectedly, yet with perfect timing.
I am tremendously thankful for my teacher. Retired and with back pains that are exacerbated by hours of sitting at the gayageum, she welcomed me as her only student. And she let me use her best gayageum for the performance! It's because she loves me, I am sure. When I become old, I hope I'm as sophisticated and cute a lady as her :)